Some people may believe that prescription drugs are safe to use however they want because the medicines are prescribed by doctors. However, this is a misconception that can lead to many problems. A number of prescription drugs require close monitoring by doctors because they can become addictive.
In fact, in recent years there has been a major increase in abuse of prescription drugs of various kinds. Whether they are being used as club or street drugs, or people are developing addiction from long-term use or misuse of legitimately prescribed medications, this trend is becoming more and more prevalent in areas across the country. In addition, there is an increased risk of illicit drug use for those who become addicted to prescription drugs.
Understanding the prescription drug abuse epidemic, the drugs involved, how abuse and addiction develop, and getting treatment for prescription drug abuse can help stem the tide of prescription drug abuse.
The Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic
According to research and based on the statements of a number of government organizations and addiction specialists, prescription drug abuse and addiction is a major public health issue in the U.S. The White House referred to it as an epidemic – one that is affecting an increasing number of families and communities every year.
While many of these organizations focus on the overwhelming epidemic of opioid painkiller abuse and addiction, there are other drugs involved, covering a range of drug types. Most of these drugs are used to control pain, while others are for treatment of psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, and behavioral disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Contrary to what some people may believe, these drugs are not “safe” compared to street drugs. In fact, opioid medications contribute to the highest risks of overdose; benzodiazepines, on the other hand, have potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Addiction to prescription drugs can lead to addiction to higher-risk drugs like heroin or methamphetamine.
No matter the type of drug, there is a combination of factors that can lead to abuse. When abuse continues for long enough, it can lead to addiction.
Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs
A number of types of prescription drugs are abused. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are three basic categories that make up the majority:
Opioid painkillers: these are usually prescribed to treat chronic pain, post-operative pain, or acute pain, as well as cough and more mild types of pain. Typical medicines include:
- Vicodin (hydrocodone)
- Percocet (oxycodone)
- OxyContin (oxycodone)
- Avinza and Kadian (morphine)
Benzodiazepines and other central nervous system depressants: these medicines are used to treat anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. The most commonly known in this category are:
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
- Sleep aids like Ambien
- Barbiturates like phenobarbital
Stimulants: doctors prescribe certain stimulants to help manage conditions like ADHD or narcolepsy – a sleep disorder. They include:
- Ritalin (methylphenidate)
- Adderall (dextroamphetamine and amphetamine)
- Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine)
- Provigil (modafinil)
How Prescription Drug Abuse Develops
Most people who use prescription drugs on orders from their doctors do so without a problem. However, there are some ways of using prescription drugs that can lead to abuse and addiction, as described on WebMD. More often than not, the process follows a predictable course:
- The individual is prescribed the drug for pain or to help manage a mental disorder, and begins using it as usual.
- The person perceives that using a little more of the drug than is prescribed might help the issue more; this might happen during severe pain or in the middle of an anxiety attack or other mental event. An alternative in this step is that the person continues using the drug longer than is recommended, either because of irresponsible prescribing or because the person does not want to stop using the drug.
- The person begins using the substance at the higher dose or more often on a regular basis.
- Tolerance develops, where the same amount of the drug does not have the same effect, so the person increases the dose or frequency again.
- If this cycle continues, the body and brain become dependent on the drug to function properly. This is addiction.
In other cases, the individual might not even be the original recipient of the prescription. Sometimes, prescription drugs are stolen and used as club or street drugs. Nevertheless, the process can be the same. Overuse can lead to addiction and, in particular, overdose.
Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse
There are some common signs that can indicate a person is having a problem with prescription drug abuse. As described by the Mayo Clinic, these include:
- Missing pills from a prescription, or other theft of drugs
- Forging prescriptions or “losing” prescriptions so more must be written
- Running out of pills sooner than expected or taking higher doses than prescribed
- Sleepiness, for opioids and depressants
- Extreme wakefulness, for steroids
- Atypical agitation, anger, mood swings
In addition to these, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) criteria, as listed on PsychCentral, indicate that there are 11 general signs of drug abuse, which include:
- Sense of loss of control over drug use
- Withdrawal from friends or favorite activities
- Trouble with relationships
- Difficulty performing daily responsibilities due to continued drug use
- Continued drug use, even when faced with consequences
- Cravings and excessive time spent seeking drugs or engaging in drug use
If signs from both lists are present, the individual could be struggling with prescription drug abuse or addiction.
Statistics and Facts about Prescription Drug Abuse
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has compiled a number of statistics about abuse of and addiction to prescription drugs:
- About 52 million people have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons throughout their lifetimes. This equals approximately 20 percent of people 12 and older.
- Among those who report non-medical use of prescription drugs, almost 14 percent could be considered addicted to the drugs.
- In 2009, about one million emergency room visits were attributable to prescription drug use; of these, 343,000 involved opioid painkillers. Benzodiazepines made up most of the 363,000 visits for sedative use, and there were 22,000 visits caused by stimulant abuse. More than half of all prescription drug-related visits to the ER involved multiple drugs.
In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that:
- More people died from drug overdose in 2014 than any year on record. The majority of these were the result of opioid overdose.
- Since 1999, the number of opioid prescriptions in the U.S. has quadrupled. At the same time, deaths from prescription opioid overdose has also quadrupled.
Most drug treatment programs are capable of providing help for prescription drug abuse. If a person or loved ones suspect prescription drug abuse, it is important to get help through a reputable, research-based treatment center to prevent the dangers of overdose, withdrawal, or progression to street drugs, which have higher risks.
Through treatment, an individual struggling with prescription drug abuse can more safely detox and withdraw from the drug. In addition, a research-based rehab center can provide individualized care that will help the individual:
- Learn to manage triggers and cravings for drug use
- Learn alternatives to drug use to deal with problems
- Get therapy for issues that may underlie drug use, such as co-occurring disorders or stress
- Work in a group process with others who are struggling with the same type of drug abuse
- Get support and motivation after treatment to continue abstinence
With enough time and dedication, an individual who is struggling with abuse of prescription drugs can recover and find a path to a more positive future.